The Town of Comox has held off making any move to encourage the community to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In response to a request from Dr. Alex Nataros, who has a family practice in Comox, council debated the possibility of making a statement to encourage residents and visitors to wear a mask in public in public places, especially in confined spaces indoors, and for businesses to have a volunteer customer register at the entrance to help with contact tracing.
Coun. Alex Bissinger made a motion for council to encourage this, rather than make it mandatory.
“I know we’ve seen an increase in cases,” she said. “I know we’re lucky to be in Comox and on Vancouver Island.”
Bissinger spoke about her own “scare,” saying her husband has been working in Vancouver of late and recently had to undergo a COVID-19 test.
After, she started trying to remember every place she had been in recent weeks and realized that while she was often wearing a mask, she was “embarrassed” to admit there were times she did not.
Nataros had been calling for action by council to encourage mask-wearing, saying the science has supported the arguments for wearing masks to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
In contrast, Arnott later told The Record his position was that mask policy is a matter for provincial public health officials, who have the expertise.
“We’re following our local health officer, Dr. Charmaine Enns, who follows Dr. Bonnie Henry,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a decision that we are experienced enough to make. I don’t think it should be a political decision. It should be a public health decision.”
The mayor said he understands the issue is generating strong opinions.
“It’s a very polarizing issue,” he said. “Local politicians should not be getting in the way of the public health professionals.”
Another physician, Dr. Michael Raymont, also sent a letter to council calling for action.
Nataros said he had also polled other local doctors for their views and found strong support for mask use. He was disappointed the majority of council did not support the measure, adding that the language was not asking for mandatory action but rather that people be encouraged to wear masks.
“It’s very soft language,” he said.
Nataros said the wording of the request is completely in line with public health officials’ position.
“This is not Dr. Bonnie Henry’s job, to tell municipalities what to do,” he said. “She’s done an extraordinary job in setting the tone, in setting the culture … while laying out the latest, best medical evidence.”
He said there are other things he would rather be doing, but he feels he has a duty as a physician to get local government to take a stand.
“I have 1,500 patients that are actively voicing to me their concerns in Comox about how people and businesses are not taking this seriously enough,” he said.
Not everyone agrees the general public should be wearing masks though. Four people submitted correspondence to council in response to Nataros’s call for masks. Some questioned the effect this could have on struggling businesses or that not all doctors agree with Nataros. Others provide links to information to support their argument, primarily to information from a non-profit group questioning vaccine use, as well as stories on Fox News and a report from Denis Rancourt, identified as a researcher for the Ontario Civil Liberties Association.
An article in the medical journal, The Lancet, from June 2020 provided a systemic review and meta-analyses of 172 observational studies, which support measures such as distancing and masks. The review does note the many studies’ limitations, such as an absence of randomized controlled testing. However, it adds that previous reviews were limited by their lack of direct evidence from COVID-19 or other coronavirus epidemics such as SARS or MERS. The previous data from randomized trials typically focused on common viruses such as seasonal flu.
In any case, masks have been becoming more common of late. Recently, more businesses and services have been asking customers to wear masks, including BC Transit and TransLink, as well as Walmart.
As well, there have been questions from the public as to why visitors to the hospital are not required to wear masks. Island Health sent a response to clarify the present policy, which is that staff screen people coming into any acute care facility for COVID-19 risk and will provide a medical-grade mask if someone does pose a risk. They do not require asymptomatic people to wear a mask but expect them to maintain a safe physical distance at all times.
As well, Island Health staff members are required to wear a mask when providing care, or are unable to maintain two metres distance or create a physical barrier. In emergency departments, all patients and support persons are to wear a mask when unable to maintain safe physical distance from other people in the department.
“This requirement provides protection for both patients and staff from transmission of large droplets,” said an Island Health spokesperson.